11 November 2009

Thriving Trade in Out-of-Date Best-Before Foods

Excerpt from BBC News, 10 November 2009

'Thousands of tonnes of food are binned annually in the UK because of confusion over use-by dates. But those willing to overlook the labels are finding big online discounts on food past its prime.

The UK appears to be a nation of food wasters, throwing away 8.3 million tonnes every year. That is a mountain of leftovers, enough to fill 4,700 Olympic-sized swimming pools, says the government's anti-waste arm, Wrap.

Food Labels Explained

Use-by: the key date in terms of safety. Never eat food after this date. Found on cooked meats, soft cheeses and dairy-based desserts

Best-before: is about quality not safety. Food should be safe to eat after this date, but it might not be at its best. One exception is eggs

Sell-by/Display-until: this information is for the retailer, not the customer. It is mainly used for stock control purposes

Of that, 5.3 million tonnes could have been eaten, it claims.

The cause of much of this waste is down to confusion over date labels. A recent survey suggests half of people do not understand the differences between them.

More than one-third believe any product past its best-before date should not be eaten and 53% never eat fruit or vegetables after they have reached that date.

"We lead extremely busy lives and taking an interest in what's written on the date label and then understanding what that actually means is a step too far for a lot of us," says Julia Falcon from the Love Food Hate Waste Campaign.

"If people were more confident about what date labels mean they'd get round to eating more of their food rather than throwing it away."

Some are already comfortable with eating food past its prime. Two years ago Dan Cluderay quit his job as a market stall holder and set up an online supermarket specialising in products past their best-before date.

His stock includes tinned and packaged groceries, biscuits, crisps and fizzy drinks.

"In the last year sales have gone up 500%. The reason we've done well is that we're offering value for money," says Mr Cluderay. His Approved Foods site is one of a small number of online retailers selling short-dated or out-of-date best-before produce.

"At one time, health inspectors would say you can't have that if it's past the best-before date and now there's a complete shift in the way people think. Perhaps it is more acceptable to drink a can of pop that's a week out of date."

And, comparing the offers of such sites with High Street retail prices, it is easy to see where its success lies.

Chocolate brownies two weeks past their best-before date are 20p instead of 89p. A dozen tins of olives with a best-before date of last August are going for £1 - as are 10 bags of crisps a week out of date.

Brand names are often erased, but otherwise the website looks like any other online supermarket: customers add products to a basket, pay up and a courier delivers the shopping...

It is perfectly legal, and other online retailers are following suit. "Shops are allowed to sell food after its best-before date has passed," says Sam Montell, nutritionist for the Food Standards Agency.

"Best-before dates are concerned with quality rather than safety, so it doesn't mean that the food is dangerous if the date has passed."

Although date labels are now a ubiquitous part of grocery shopping, they were introduced relatively recently. Sell-by dates came in when supermarkets began to take over from milkmen, selling milk and cream.

Marks and Spencer started using them in the 1950s, to give people confidence in the products in their chilled cabinets.

For some, attitudes towards food labels are now changing. Perhaps it is down to a rising awareness of how much food and drink is wasted, and the cost.

Recent Wrap data suggests £12bn worth is binned every year in the UK, or around £680 for the average family.

Secretary of State for the Environment Hilary Benn has suggested sell-by dates should be scrapped and best-befores ignored.

It is a notion many market traders subscribe to. At the Bullring Open Market in Birmingham, renowned for hundreds of stalls selling fresh produce, much of the food is sold without packaging or date labels...'

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